I n the early 1960s, Athelstan Spilhaus proposed what he believed could be a solution to, among other things, environmental pollution and the many perceived problems of American cities—the Minnesota Experimental City. The South African-born, MIT-educated Spilhaus is not exactly a household name today, but he was once well-known as a scientist (among other things, he invented the bathythermograph) and also for authoring a futurist comic strip, Our New Age, which appeared in many American newspapers. The Experimental City, directed by Chad Freidrichs, presents Spilhaus’s major ideas through an ingeniously constructed documentary that makes good use of archival footage, documents, and recordings, along with re-enactments that look just fake enough to signal their constructed nature.
Athelstan’s pet project, the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC), was to be a planned community in rural Minnesota which would house 250,000 people, be self-sustaining, and include innovations like a monorail system, moving sidewalks, and a dome to control the climate. It sounds ridiculous today, but at the time the MXC drew the support of influential politicians like Hubert Humphrey as well as investment by major players like Ford and Boeing. One problem Spilhaus had not anticipated, however, was opposition from people who were already living on the land where he proposed to build his futuristic city. A true colonizer would have simply steamrolled the opposition, but that approach works better on brown people and those living in foreign countries than on white Americans who can refuse to be the collateral damage in someone else’s utopian dream.
There’s a lot of things going on in this documentary, making it easy to get lost in the details, but it’s worth your time because Spilhaus’s basic themes remain familiar in politics today. In particular, his fixation on “urban decay” is echoed in many political and cultural pronouncements today, despite the fact that urban residents score higher than rural people on many quality of life measures like education and health. Reality has nothing to do with these pronouncements, however, which are based on the unfounded belief that cities are not only evil but also fundamentally un-American. Sigh—this is an old and tired argument dating back to the days of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson that pits those born on third base (like the slave-holding Jefferson, with his never-realized vision of a nation of yeoman farmers) with those who had to make their own way (Hamilton, the ultimate outsider who recognized the economic opportunity offered by cities and commerce).
Another Spilhaus theme echoed by politicians today is that our cities are a hopeless mess, and thus the only solution is to start over from scratch, rather than dealing sensibly with urban problems as they arise (or, better yet, being proactive in solving them). In this regard, the residents of rural Minnesota who blocked the creation of MXC may ultimately have done Spilhaus a favor: because his utopia was never built, he and his supporters got to continue believing in his perfect, non-existent city, without having to deal with any of the bothersome problems that arise in real life. As we say in the writer’s trade, everything you haven’t written yet is perfect, and so it is with utopias—whereas once they really exist, all the normal problems of living arise and need to be solved. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Experimental City will be screened in the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University at 7:30 pm on June 22, 23, and 24. Tickets are $7 for the general public, $6 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $5 for Webster University staff and faculty, and free for Webster students with proper ID.